In the White House, Obama pays for his toothpaste President Obama flashes his smile (AP photo / Thinkstock)
In the White House, Obama pays for his toothpaste
Lexile

There was no free lunch or breakfast or dinner for President Barack Obama on Thanksgiving Day. Or any other day for that matter.

He had to dig into his pocket to pay for his holiday feast of turkey, ham, two kinds of stuffing, sweet and regular potatoes and six different kinds of pie. It's a longstanding practice. A president pays for meals for himself, his family and personal guests.

Obama also pays for other basics. Those include everything from toothpaste to dry cleaning.

Gary Walters, who was chief White House usher for many years, said the payment rule dates back to 1800. That's when the White House was first occupied by President John Adams and there was no staff. Presidents brought staff with them and paid for everything.

Congress gradually began spending money to maintain an official White House staff. They oversaw operations and maintenance, but presidents continued to pay for personal expenses.

What it boils down to, Walters said, is that the White House is first and foremost the president's home.

"All those things that are personal in nature that we all pay for, the first family pays for," he said.

For the budget year that ended Sept. 30, Congress gave the White House $19,000 to pay for official receptions and $12.7 million to cover operating expenses for the residence. Those expenses may include entertainment. The cost of meals for some White House events, including state dinners and receptions, is picked up by the State Department or political parties.

White House chefs who prepare the president's meals are paid by the government.

Since presidents and first ladies can't easily pop into the neighborhood drug store, a White House residence staff member will pick up things like toothpaste and deodorant during shopping runs. The staff member will keep the bill for Obama.

Another cost is private parties, such as the 50th birthday bash Obama threw for first lady Michelle Obama. For private events, presidents pay for food and beverages, use of waiters and servers, and setup and cleanup crews. Taxpayers are only supposed to pay for official government functions.

The White House usher's office prepares a detailed bill and sends a copy to the president and another to the first lady each month. It lists all the food and beverages consumed by the first family and personal guests.

The president then reimburses the government.

"It's just the tradition and it's continued on through time that the presidents will pay for their own food and, I guess, if they needed something for the house that was personal. Toothpaste, cologne or whatever," said William Bushong, chief historian at the White House Historical Association.

Presidents are paid $400,000 annually, plus a $50,000 allowance to help defray costs associated with carrying out official duties. The government pays for the rent at the White House, transportation, security and medical care.

Critical thinking challenge: Most hotels provide soap and shampoo for free. Why doesn't Obama get freebies like these in the White House?

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